We were in Vietnam, halfway through our journey. We’d left behind the friendlier south, with Ho Chi Minh City’s French colonial architecture and unpredictable traffic, yet to enter the hostile north where we would soon find out what it’s like to be the object of racism and that not everyone is treated equally in this country.
We were moving along the South China Sea’s coast and the winds blew us to the stunning ancient trading port of Hoi An. This medium-size town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site not without a reason. It’s stunning 15th-19th century wooden buildings, previously belonging to wealthy tradesmen, give it a unique air and in my eyes make it one the most beautiful places in Vietnam.
Walking the streets of Hoi An, we also learnt that it took one Polish guy, Kazimierz Kwiatkowski, to seal Polish-Vietnamese cultural relations and “with his enthusiasm and talent, he contributed greatly to the discovery, research and publicity” of Vietnamese heritage, having helped Hoi An’s old town to be acknowledged by UNESCO in 1999, as we learnt from the plaque under his bust proudly displayed in the centre.
It was our first day in town. Having found a place to sleep, we set off to explore. The early evening scorch directed us to the banks of the Thu Bồn River, which tempted us with a promise of a cooling breeze and a short break for our fatigued feet.
We hadn’t been there long, when an old Vietnamese woman approached us. She seemed friendly and spoke a bit of English, which was a surprising novelty in this part of the world. She explained she used to come there often as she had owned a boat in which to take tourists up and down the river. It used to be her main source of income and thanks to it she met a Frenchman who became her frequent boat companion. She had two small children who she had to look after on her own, as her husband had died or was away, we never found out.
She asked if we’d like to come over for dinner. Of course we did! Homemade Vietnamese food cooked by a local especially for us sounded great. We agreed to meet by the bridge at 6 p.m. We said goodbye and went directly to our hostel to drop of some stuff and prepare to meet her again. We also bought some beers and snacks to show our gratitude.
6 p.m. on the dot we were there, standing in an obvious spot to be easily visible. We didn’t have to wait long; our friendly host soon arrived with a friend on a moped. Her male companion was driving and she explained that her house was quite far, on the other side of the river, somewhere in the jungle. Since all four of us couldn’t fit on the moped and go at the same time, I was taken first and Jon was left alone on the bridge.
As Ania disappeared further into the distance a fleeting moment of panic gripped me.
‘Is this a good idea? We hardly know the woman.’
Then I relaxed, she seemed nice, genuinely nice. This type of thing happens all the time when travelling, I reasoned. The guy will be back soon, I just need to be patient.
And so I waited… and waited… with renewed fear rising all the time. After 20 minutes I began to get nervous, I tried to look closely at every passing motorbike trying desperately to remember the features of the man who had spirited Ania and our soon-to-be-host away. After 30 mins I was feverishly making back-up plans, knowing even then that I had no idea who to call in case of emergencies such as these and how I would never be able to explain what had happened to a police force that probably wouldn’t give a damn.
They took me to the jungle, driving on a bumpy dirt road through the village. I didn’t know where I was nor how to get back as there were so many turns and it all looked the same. After around 15 minutes we arrived at a house which resembled more a prefab than a house. It was an unpainted raw concrete box of two rooms, with no panes but wooden planks in the windows and covered with a corrugated metal roof.
It was in the depths of this silent, isolated torture that our driver found me. I breathed a sigh of relief so profound it scattered the passers-by. He signalled for me to get on, and off we went.
The journey seemed remarkable long considering how big the town actually was. Full of twisting turns and what I could have sworn was doubling back on ourselves. However, after 20 or 30 minutes we arrived at the lady’s house, and I saw Ania pass by the glassless window.
Inside of the house there was hardly any furniture. A table, a single kitchen cupboard and a bed covered with a straw mat; that was all. There was another door on the other side of the house through which Jon went in, around 20 minutes after our arrival. It probably shouldn’t have made me feel cautious but I thought it strange that they used two different doors, as if they were trying to confuse us and made it difficult for us to ever get back.
The lady showed us around and introduced us to her two lovely children. They were living in extreme poverty; there were no toys, no books, nothing which the kids could use to play or learn about the world with. When she started to cook I offered to help, which she kindly refused but after a while gave me some garlic to chop. Jon was playing with the kids, showing them his iPod which they’d never seen before. Some other kids from the neighbourhood came over and were curiously peeking through the window to see the “white” guests.
Not long after food was prepared. We thought it strange that the lady wasn’t eating too, as we were under the impression that she was returning home to eat and had invited us to dine with her. She poured us beer and then sat the table and told us about her troubles. Money seemed the cause of most of them or the lack of it to be more precise. Injury and bereavement, unemployment and abandonment. We sat, and we listened, feeling pity for the women’s plight.
The meal was simple but tasty during which our host wouldn’t stop telling us how hard her life was. Having to bring up two kids on her own, with no money or help at all. She said her older, 8 year old son was healthy but the younger one suffered from the Down syndrome, which made it even more difficult for her. We felt sorry for her and as we had previously agreed we would leave her some money at the end of our stay, just to help a little and to say thank you for the meal.
After the meal she took out a large wooden basin, which she filled with cold water from a hose and started bathing her youngest. We felt it was the time for us to go. We stood up and started saying how nice it was to come and visit her in her house, to meet her children and see how they lived, and to eat such tasty food.
“We know it’s not much but we thought we would give you some money for the meal, as it must have cost you a lot of money and effort to prepare it”, I said and produced slightly more than an equivalent of two meals in a restaurant. I feared she might feel offended. After all she invited us as guests and maybe it was in bad taste to offer money but I felt she could do with it.
“Give me more”, she said. I looked perplexed and she repeated her demand, naming a specific amount of money, which was twice as much as we had on us.
Then we understood. Having lured us to her house and having shown us the conditions she had to struggle with, she thought us an easy target. And as willing as we had been to help her and give us what we had on us, we couldn’t help feeling that she’d had it all planned, that she wanted to keep us there until we give her more money.
She kept nagging us for more but we lost our patience and felt the biggest idiots having fallen for a scam like that. We decided to leave.
“How do we get back to town?” I asked.
“You can fly” said she and turned away.
The shame of being had. My anger burned and my embarrassment blushed. How could I have been so naïve? The friendly woman who liked chatting to westerns? The separate journeys that had seemed intent on disorientating us? We forced the money we originally offered in her hands and left not knowing where we were but determined to put distance between her and ourselves.
When we left, it was already very dark and looked nothing like when we had arrived. We were in the middle of this jungle village having no idea how to get back. We started walking and when we turned round the corner we asked some kids who pointed us in a direction. We walked and walked to the barking of dogs in the night, following a road we swear we hadn’t seen before. After only 20 minutes on foot we found the river, which only proved that the woman and her friend purposely chose a longer and complicated way to confuse us and prevent us from getting back on our own, in case we wouldn’t want to pay the money.
They must have done it on a regular basis. I wonder how many other backpackers fell into her cave before discovering that not all poor old women are kind-hearted.
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